April 28, 2001

MOSCOW — The world’s first paying space tourist is safely in Earth orbit, fulfilling a longtime personal dream for U.S. businessman Dennis Tito and opening a new era of spaceflight for humanity.

Riding inside a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, Tito and his two cosmonaut colleagues — Soyuz commander Talgat Musabayev and flight engineer Yuri Baturin — blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:37 a.m. EDT (07:37 GMT) on a weeklong mission to the International Space Station.

Moments after achieving orbit a flight controller in the Russian Mission Control center near Moscow radioed “How do you feel Dennis?”

“Harasho,” was the reply in Russian from Tito — translation: “Good.”

Even as the Soyuz rocket was thundering into orbit, the seven crew members of Space Shuttle Endeavour were awakened to begin their 10th day in space and immediately told of the news that the rocket was on its way.

There was no reaction from the shuttle crew.

Reluctantly blessed by NASA, Tito’s trip into space and eventual port call at Space Station Alpha comes after a tense months-long standoff between the U.S. and Russian space agencies that continued with a variety of arguments until just hours before the California millionaire’s planned liftoff.

Musabayev and Baturin are flying a Soyuz spacecraft up to the orbiting outpost to replace the Soyuz vehicle that has been docked at the station since Nov. 2, 2000. They will dock the new Soyuz, spend a few days transferring equipment and then board the old Soyuz to return it to Earth.

Immediate reaction from program managers at the Mission Control Center near Moscow was mixed in its tone.

“By launching Tito, Russia has proved that it’s an equal partner in the project, not a technical servant,” said Yuri Grigroryee, deputy general designer for RSC Energia, makers of the Soyuz hardware.

“I cannot rule out that NASA may retaliate for having its opposition to the Tito flight ignored,” he said. “NASA’s opposition was politically motivated. They failed to find any ‘technical fault’ with Tito and his level of preparedness.”

Grigroryee said he hoped that Tito’s adventure “will be the first step towards what can become an era of space tourism.”

By contrast, flight control chief and former cosmonaut, Vladimir Solovyev, declined to comment on whether NASA had any political motives to keep Tito from flying.

Russian flight rules call for the Soyuz spacecraft docked to the station to be exchanged every six months because of concerns about its rocket propellant corroding its fuel tanks and lines, as well as other ship systems that deteriorate in the harsh space environment. The Soyuz are critical because they serve as emergency escape craft for the expedition crews living and working aboard the frontier outpost.

Having paid the Russians some $12 to $20 million for the ticket, Tito is riding along with Musabayev and Baturin in the otherwise unused third seat of the Soyuz capsule.

Tito’s job: stay out of the way and enjoy the view.

“Right now I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my entire life,” Tito, a former aerospace engineer who found his fortune working in high finance, said during a press conference at the launch site on Friday.

Originally intending to fly to the late Mir space station, that historic facility’s demise in March prompted Russian officials to honor their agreement with Tito by sending him to the station Alpha instead, much to the public dismay of NASA and other members of the international partnership.

Under an agreement signed with NASA this week, Tito agreed to pay for any damage he might inflict on any U.S. components in the growing space station and to not hold NASA liable for any injury should something happen. NASA also imposed restrictions on Tito’s movement, saying that he would not be allowed in any U.S. module unless accompanied by another crew member.

Current space station commander Yuri Usachev, however, has said he will allow Tito access to any part of the station that he wishes to see.

Fellow Expedition Two crew member Susan Helms echoed the sentiment, saying anyone who comes to the station and provides a service such as a Soyuz taxi mission is welcome.

After reaching orbit some eight minutes after launch, the Soyuz will begin a two-day chase of the station with plans to dock on Monday. Those plans might change if computer problems on the space station persist and prompt NASA managers to keep the Space Shuttle Endeavour docked to the outpost until Monday.

In that case, the Soyuz would continue to fly free around Earth another 24 hours and dock with the station on Tuesday.

In spite of the difficulty, Tito and his crewmates have remained upbeat and stepped through the final days and hours of the countdown by enjoying the rich four decades of Russian space traditions and rituals.

Friday night the crew enjoyed a 30-year-old classic Russian movie called White Sun of a Desert,” about Civil War in Russia in 1918 to 1922 and the fight expand Soviet power into Central Asia.

This morning, matching a schedule of events followed by dozens of cosmonauts before them, the trio started their day with a final shower and regular medical examination that takes about 10 minutes and includes measuring blood pressure and weight.

Next each cosmonaut’s body was wiped down with towels soaked in disinfectant. That’s followed by putting on fresh clothes and joining crewmates for breakfast.

The menu is generally similar to a continental-type breakfast you might find in a hotel, but a cosmonaut can order whatever they want. Nevertheless, the fliers try not to fill up their stomachs since adapting to weightlessness often includes a bout of motion sickness.

After breakfast Baturin, Musabayev and Tito returned to their rooms where they had a traditional farewell ceremony that included a small drink of champagne and some private time with a limited number of friends and instructors who trained them for this mission.

In fact, only those people who undergo daily medical checkups and are considered absolutely healthy are allowed in close contact with the cosmonauts before a mission. The reason: to prevent the cosmonauts from infection right before their mission.

Another tradition came next. The three men posed for a picture with their guests and then signed the doors of their rooms.

From there they stepped outside and boarded a bus for a short trip to the “checkup” building where they donned spacesuits and held a very brief press conference from behind the protection of a glass wall.

Having talked to the press, the crew picked up their box-like individual cooling systems and went out of the building. There at the small lot right in front of the building, they reported to the chairman of the State Commission on their readiness to fly in a brief but poignant ceremony.

Another short bus ride later, the crew stepped off the vehicle and marked another cosmonaut tradition that legend says began with Yuri Gagarin in 1961 when he answered a “call of nature,” urinating on the bus’ wheel. Modern cosmonauts repeat the action as a token of good luck.

Space News Moscow reporter Simon Saradzhyan contributed to this report.